Imperial Oil forced us out, family says

Imperial Oil pushed two prominent Sahtu Dene families off their lands in the rush to tap oil at Norman Wells, N.W.T., the families say.

N.W.T. grandfather told tale to grandson on video

Joe Blondin talks to his grandson, filmmaker Raymond Yakeleya, about his early years at the current site of Norman Wells, N.W.T. Blondin died 11 years ago.
Imperial Oil needs to deal with some old business in the Northwest Territories as it moves ahead with its newly approved Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline, two prominent Sahtu Dene families say.

The Blondins and Yakeleyas say Imperial pushed their ancestors off their lands in the rush to tap oil at Norman Wells, N.W.T. Imperial's oilfield at Norman Wells is still producing for the company.

The families are threatening to sue the company unless it apologizes and compensates them.

Joe Blondin, one of the last living witnesses of Imperial's early days at the site now called Norman Wells, was video-recorded by his grandson shortly before he died, telling stories about that time.

"You never had the power to do anything. They had the money. They could do anything they wanted," Blondin, who was 87, told his grandson, filmmaker Raymond Yakeleya. "All you could do is sit down and suffer the consequences."

Dene in the area had known about the oil, which seeped from the ground, for hundreds of years, and used it to waterproof their canoes.

Supplied HBC

Blondin's family wintered at the site through the early 1900s, he said, working as hunters and fishermen to supply the Hudson's Bay Co. post in Tulita.

"It was home," Joe Blondin said.

Joe Blondin was seven or eight years old when Imperial started working in the area now known as Norman Wells.
His grandfather, Edward Blondin, knew oil was valuable and took a pail of it to Bishop Gabriel Breynat at Tulita, then known as Fort Norman.

"That was presented to Bishop Gabriel Breynat, on the assumption that anything ever happens concerning the oil, he will be well looked after," Joe Blondin said.

Blondin was seven or eight years old when Imperial arrived in the fall of 1919. Geologist Ted Link led a group of eight men with an ox and a portable drilling rig, who had made the two-month trip from Edmonton.

Link, who went on to become chief geologist at Imperial, became known as "Moneybags Link" to local Dene because he paid them $10 a day to help the company stake as much ground as possible.

Told to move

In 1920, the summer after Link and his men arrived, the Blondins were told they had to move.

"It was three or four of them that told old Edward Blondin and my dad they had to move out," Blondin said, because "it was a fire hazard."

"No compensation or nothing."

On Aug. 27, 1920, Imperial Oil struck oil, which reportedly gushed 21 metres above the drill floor for 40 minutes before the well was capped.

Walter Blondin believes there are stories like those told by his father anywhere valuable natural resources are found. ((CBC))
Walter Blondin, a businessman in Fort Simpson who is Joe Blondin's son, said his father told him Imperial and the federal government continued for years to push the family off the land.

"Wherever you see resources, you probably would encounter the same type of story," Walter Blondin told the CBC.

During the Second World War, four cabins were burned to the ground to make room for an army transmitter site, Walter Blondin recounted, and his aunt was forced to leave Norman Wells when her husband, an Imperial Oil worker, died in a hunting accident, he said.

The family asked five years ago for an apology and compensation.

"We went to Imperial Oil with our lawyers. We wrote them a letter and asked them for an immediate apology, compensation, and the third step was litigation," Walter Blondin said. "We got back a letter, a response from them, virtually telling us to jump off the bridge."

The letter from Imperial stated the company would not respond to the request for compensation, a scholarship fund, an apology and money to document what had happened.

Company investigates

Imperial Oil spokesman Pius Rolheiser said the company is taking the matter seriously.

"We're doing our level best and making every effort we can to try to understand the situation because, I think, until we understand, you know, much better than we currently do, what may or may not have happened, it's really difficult to respond," Rolheiser said.

The company is doing research at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, the Norman Wells cultural centre and in company archives, looking for information on its early days in Norman Wells, Rolheiser said.

He couldn't say what the company would do if it couldn't find any written records pertaining to the Blondins' allegations.

On the video shot three months before he died, Joe Blondin told his grandson that he recounted what he remembered as accurately as possible.

"What I've said, as far as I remember, that's the gospel truth. I'm just reflecting back of what I see," he said. "That was our property, our hunting grounds."